from the opening moments, Brian May shredding on guitar, to the closing tour de force at Live Aid, sound is front and center in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But the biopic about Queen and frontman Freddie Mercury unfurls with such rollicking abandon, propelled largely by a killer soundtrack of the band’s hits of the ’70s and ’80s, one could take the sonic craftsmanship for granted.
The breezy scene of the band recording the title track at Rockfield farm “was very complicated in terms of all the sound elements in the recording area,” says the film’s re-recording mixer/music mixer Paul Massey. “There was headphone leakage, the guitar amp humming, listening to the track through the control room speakers.”
Via intercom the conversation flips between the live room and the boys at the board. “It took a long time to get the sounds real, in the right perspective,” adds Massey, a seven-time Oscar nominee who got his start at a Canadian recording studio before segueing to film.
The scene features a 37-second montage of Mercury (Rami Malek) coaxing a perfectly pitched recitation of “Galileo! Figaro!” from drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). The band’s sound engineers ransacked the archives for useful material, including original stems of Queen recordings.
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“The ‘Galileos’ and ‘Figaros’ are Ben Hardy, the actor, mixed in with original takes of Roger Taylor,” says supervising sound editor John Warhurst. “And when you hear Rami singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the studio it’s a 1975 take of Freddie that was never used.”
Such choices were meant to give the film the authenticity of a bespoke experience — something the audience, despite familiarity with many of the hits, was hearing for the very first time.
Massey says “99.9%” of the singing in the film is Mercury. The rest is a blend of Malek’s voice with Mercury sound-alike Marc Martel.
“We only did that for vocals that didn’t exist, things like the audition scene in the parking lot, ‘Happy Birthday’ over lunch and writing ‘Love of My Life’ at the farm house,” Warhurst says.
For the rest, “We went through amazing lengths to get Rami’s amazing performance in synch with Freddie’s amazing performance and make it as tight as we possibly could,” Massey says, noting Malek did such a great job speaking dialogue though a mouthful of fake teeth that the ADR requirements were minimal, “the same as any other film,” with just a few technical re-dos for such things as noise and creative changes, due largely to the work of Nina Hartstone, supervising dialogue/ADR editor.
As meticulous as the sound crew was with details of the set pieces, dialogue and music — as they edged toward the final mix, May and Taylor were sending Massey notes daily — equal care was taken to place that music in context.
“We wanted the sound of thousands of people singing and clapping, which was impossible to get from the concert recordings, because when you raise the levels the music bleeds in.”
Warhurst arranged for access to the extras on the Live Aid set, stealing time over a series of days when the camera set-ups were changing, and using a call-and-response technique inspired by Mercury himself, he coached groups of up to 500 people through sing-alongs.
Similarly, when Warhurst wanted the sound of 20,000 people doing synchronized stomps and hand-claps (for use on “We Will Rock You” and “Radio Ga Ga”), he and Massey asked permission to record it, and May accommodated the request. During a mid-set break he “kind of directed it — asking them to slow down, speed up, do over. The crowd loved it,” Warhurst recalls.
Crowd-sourced sound also came via 20th Century Fox’s “Get Me In” promotion, inviting fans to send in recordings of themselves singing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Between that and the recordings we made, we built quite a library of crowd singing,” says Warhurst. “When the camera is panning around the audience and you’re next to a person you are actually hearing an individual. Then when it pans back, it morphs again into a bigger crowd, creating almost a hyper-real feeling — a version of what it would be like to actually be at Live Aid.”
The sound team was also able to access the O2 arena prior to the band’s soundcheck, hang 13 microphones throughout the venue, then pump stems from Queen’s 1985 Live Aid set through the AV, recording it.
“So when you the shot cuts to the back of the stadium, the sound matches. It’s very subtle, but real,” Warhurst says.
Adds Massey, “[The technology of Dolby] Atmos allowed all this to shine for the audience, utilizing all the ceiling speakers we could place sound all around the room.”